Marguerite de Valois, by Alexandre Dumas

Chapter 3.

The Poet-King.

The next day and those that followed were devoted to festivals, balls, and tournaments.

The same amalgamation continued to take place between the two parties. The caresses and compliments lavished were enough to turn the heads of the most bigoted Huguenots. Père Cotton was to be seen dining and carousing with the Baron de Courtaumer; the Duc de Guise went boating on the Seine with the Prince de Condé. King Charles seemed to have laid aside his usual melancholy, and could not get enough of the society of his new brother-inlaw, Henry. Moreover, the queen mother was so gay, and so occupied with embroidery, ornaments, and plumes, that she could not sleep.

The Huguenots, to some degree contaminated by this new Capua, began to assume silken pourpoints, wear devices, and parade before certain balconies, as if they were Catholics.

On every side there was such a reaction in favor of the Protestants that it seemed as if the whole court was about to become Protestant; even the admiral, in spite of his experience, was deceived, and was so carried away that one evening he forgot for two whole hours to chew on his toothpick, which he always used from two o’clock, at which time he finished his dinner, until eight o’clock at night, when he sat down to supper.

The evening on which the admiral thus unaccountably deviated from his usual habit, King Charles IX. had invited Henry of Navarre and the Duc de Guise to sup with him. After the repast he took them into his chamber, and was busily explaining to them the ingenious mechanism of a wolf-trap he had invented, when, interrupting himself —

“Isn’t the admiral coming to-night?” he asked. “Who has seen him today and can tell me anything about him?”

“I have,” said the King of Navarre; “and if your Majesty is anxious about his health, I can reassure you, for I saw him this morning at six, and this evening at seven o’clock.”

“Aha!” replied the King, whose eyes were instantly fixed with a searching expression on his brother-inlaw; “for a new-married man, Harry, you are very early.”

“Yes, sire,” answered the King of Navarre, “I wished to inquire of the admiral, who knows everything, whether some gentlemen I am expecting are on their way hither.”

“More gentlemen! why, you had eight hundred on the day of your wedding, and fresh ones join you every day. You are surely not going to invade us?” said Charles IX., smiling.

The Duc de Guise frowned.

“Sire,” returned the Béarnais, “a war with Flanders is spoken of, and I am collecting round me all those gentlemen of my country and its neighborhood whom I think can be useful to your Majesty.”

The duke, calling to mind the pretended project Henry had mentioned to Marguerite the day of their marriage, listened still more attentively.

“Well, well,” replied the King, with his sinister smile, “the more the better; let them all come, Henry. But who are these gentlemen? — brave ones, I trust.”

“I know not, sire, if my gentlemen will ever equal those of your Majesty, or the Duc d’Anjou’s, or the Duc de Guise’s, but I know that they will do their best.”

“Do you expect many?”

“Ten or a dozen more.”

“What are their names?”

“Sire, their names escape me, and with the exception of one, whom Téligny recommended to me as a most accomplished gentleman, and whose name is De la Mole, I cannot tell.”

“De la Mole!” exclaimed the King, who was deeply skilled in the science of genealogy; “is he not a Lerac de la Mole, a Provençal?”

“Exactly so, sire; you see I recruit even in Provence.”

“And I,” added the Duc de Guise, with a sarcastic smile, “go even further than his majesty the King of Navarre, for I seek even in Piedmont all the trusty Catholics I can find.”

“Catholic or Huguenot,” interrupted the King, “it little matters to me, so they are brave.”

The King’s face while he uttered these words, which thus united Catholics and Huguenots in his thoughts, bore such an expression of indifference that the duke himself was surprised.

“Your Majesty is occupied with the Flemings,” said the admiral, to whom Charles had some days previously accorded the favor of entering without being announced, and who had overheard the King’s last words.

“Ah! here is my father the admiral!” cried Charles, opening his arms. “We were speaking of war, of gentlemen, of brave men — and he comes. It is like the lodestone which attracts the iron. My brother-inlaw of Navarre and my cousin of Guise are expecting reinforcements for your army. That was what we were talking about.”

“And these reinforcements are on their way,” said the admiral.

“Have you had news of them?” asked the Béarnais.

“Yes, my son, and particularly of M. de la Mole; he was at Orléans yesterday, and will be in Paris tomorrow or the day after.”

“The devil! You must be a sorcerer, admiral,” said the Duc de Guise, “to know what is taking place at thirty or forty leagues’ distance. I should like to know for a certainty what happened or is happening before Orléans.”

Coligny remained unmoved at this savage onslaught, which evidently alluded to the death of François de Guise, the duke’s father, killed before Orléans by Poltrot de Méré, and not without a suspicion that the admiral had advised the crime.

“Sir,” replied he, coldly and with dignity, “I am a sorcerer whenever I wish to know anything positively that concerns my own affairs or the King’s. My courier arrived an hour ago from Orléans, having travelled, thanks to the post, thirty-two leagues in a day. As M. de la Mole has only his own horse, he rides but ten leagues a day, and will not arrive in Paris before the 24th. Here is all my magic.”

“Bravo, my father, a clever answer!” cried Charles IX.; “teach these young men that wisdom as well as age has whitened your hair and beard; so now we will send them to talk of their tournaments and their love-affairs and you and I will stay and talk of our wars. Good councillors make good kings, my father. Leave us, gentlemen. I wish to talk with the admiral.”

The two young men took their departure; the King of Navarre first, then the Duc de Guise; but outside the door they separated, after a formal salute.

Coligny followed them with his eyes, not without anxiety, for he never saw those two personified hatreds meet without a dread that some new lightning flash would leap forth. Charles IX. saw what was passing in his mind, and, going to him, laid his hand on his arm:

“Have no fear, my father; I am here to preserve peace and obedience. I am really a king, now that my mother is no longer queen, and she is no longer queen now that Coligny is my father.”

“Oh, sire!” said the admiral, “Queen Catharine”—

“Is a marplot. Peace is impossible with her. These Italian Catholics are furious, and will hear of nothing but extermination; now, for my part, I not only wish to pacify, but I wish to put power into the hands of those that profess the reformed religion. The others are too dissolute, and scandalize me by their love affairs and their quarrels. Shall I speak frankly to you?” continued Charles, redoubling in energy. “I mistrust every one about me except my new friends. I suspect Tavannes’s ambition. Vieilleville cares only for good wine, and would betray his king for a cask of Malvoisie; Montmorency thinks only of the chase, and spends all his time among his dogs and falcons; the Comte de Retz is a Spaniard; the De Guises are Lorraines. I think there are no true Frenchmen in France, except myself, my brother-inlaw of Navarre, and you; but I am chained to the throne, and cannot command armies; it is as much as I can do to hunt at my ease at Saint Germain or Rambouillet. My brother-inlaw of Navarre is too young and too inexperienced; besides, he seems to me exactly like his father Antoine, ruined by women. There is but you, my father, who can be called, at the same time, as brave as Cæsar and as wise as Plato; so that I scarcely know what to do — keep you near me, as my adviser, or send you to the army, as its general. If you act as my counsellor, who will command? If you command, who will be my counsellor?”

“Sire,” said Coligny, “we must conquer first, and then take counsel after the victory.”

“That is your advice — so be it; Monday you shall leave for Flanders, and I for Amboise.”

“Your Majesty leaves Paris, then?”

“Yes; I am weary of this confusion, and of these fêtes. I am not a man of action; I am a dreamer. I was not born to be a king; I was born to be a poet. You shall form a council which shall govern while you are at war, and provided my mother is not in it, all will go well. I have already sent word to Ronsard to join me; and yonder, we two together, far from all tumult, far from the world, far from evil men, under our mighty trees on the banks of the river, with the murmur of brooks in our ears, will talk about divine things, the only compensation which there is in the world for the affairs of men. Wait! Hear these lines in which I invite him to join me; I wrote them this morning.”

Coligny smiled. Charles IX. rubbed his hand over his brow, yellow and shining like ivory, and repeated in a kind of sing-song the following couplets:

“Ronsard, I am full sure that if you see me not,

Your great King’s voice by you will shortly be forgot.

But as a slight reminder — know I still persevere

In making skill of poesy my sole endeavor.

And that is why I send to you this warm appeal,

To fill your mind with new, enthusiastic zeal.

“No longer then amuse yourself with home distractions;

Past is the time for gardening and its attractions.

Come, follow with your King, who loves you most of all,

For that the sweet strong verses from your lips do fall.

And if Ardoise shall not behold you shortly present,

A mighty quarrel will break out and prove unpleasant!”

“Bravo! sire, bravo!” cried Coligny, “I am better versed in matters of war than in matters of poetry, but it seems to me that those lines are equal to the best, even written by Ronsard, or Dorat, or even Michel de l’Hôpital, Chancellor of France.”

“Ah! my father!” exclaimed Charles IX.; “would what you said were true! For the title of poet, you see, is what I am ambitious, above all things, to gain; and as I said a few days ago to my master in poetry:

“‘The art of making verse, if one were criticised,

Should ever be above the art of reigning prized.

The crowns that you and I upon our brows are wearing,

I as the King receive, as poet you are sharing.

Your lofty soul, enkindled by celestial beams,

Flames of itself, while mine with borrowed glory gleams.

If ‘mid the gods I ask which has the better showing,

Ronsard is their delight: I, but their image glowing.

Your lyre, which ravishes with sounds so sweet and bold,

Subdues men’s minds, while I their bodies only hold!

It makes you master, lifts you into lofty regions,

Where even the haughty tyrant ne’er dared claim allegiance.’”

“Sire,” said Coligny, “I was well aware that your Majesty conversed with the Muses, but I did not know that you were their chief counsellor.”

“After you, my father, after you. And in order that I may not be disturbed in my relations with them, I wish to put you at the head of everything. So listen: I must now go and reply to a new madrigal my dear and illustrious poet has sent me. I cannot, therefore, give you the documents necessary to make you acquainted with the question now debating between Philip II. and myself. There is, besides, a plan of the campaign drawn up by my ministers. I will find it all for you, and give it to you tomorrow.”

“At what time, sire?”

“At ten o’clock; and if by chance I am busy making verses, or in my cabinet writing, well — you will come in just the same, and take all the papers which you will find on the table in this red portfolio. The color is remarkable, and you cannot mistake it. I am now going to write to Ronsard.”

“Adieu, sire!”

“Adieu, my father!”

“Your hand?”

“What, my hand? In my arms, in my heart, there is your place! Come, my old soldier, come!”

And Charles IX., drawing Coligny toward him as he bowed, pressed his lips to his white hair.

The admiral left the room, wiping away a tear.

Charles IX. followed him with his eyes as long as he could see, and listened as long as he could catch a sound; then, when he could no longer hear or see anything, he bent his head over toward his shoulder, as his custom was, and slowly entered his armory.

This armory was the king’s favorite apartment; there he took his fencing-lessons with Pompée, and his poetry lessons with Ronsard. He had gathered there a great collection of the most costly weapons he had been able to find. The walls were hung with axes, shields, spears, halberds, pistols, and muskets, and that day a famous armorer had brought him a magnificent arquebuse, on the barrel of which were inlaid in silver these four lines, composed by the royal poet himself:

Pour maintenir la foy,

Je suis belle et fidèle.

Aux ennemis du Roi,

Je suis belle et cruelle.1

1 “To uphold the faith

I am beautiful and trusty.

To the king’s enemies

I am beautiful and cruel.”

Charles, as we have said, entered this room, and after having shut the door by which he had entered, he raised the tapestry that masked a passage leading into a little chamber, where a woman kneeling before a priedieu was saying her prayers.

As this movement was executed noiselessly, and the footsteps of the king, deadened by the thick carpet, made no more noise than a phantom’s, the kneeling woman heard no sound, and continued to pray. Charles stood for a moment pensively looking at her.

She was a woman of thirty-four or thirty-five years of age, whose vigorous beauty was set off by the costume of the peasants of Caux. She wore the high cap so much the fashion at the court of France during the time of Isabel of Bavaria, and her red bodice was embroidered with gold, like those of the contadine of Nettuno and Sora. The apartment which she had for nearly twenty years occupied was close to the King’s bed-chamber and presented a singular mixture of elegance and rusticity. In equal measure the palace had encroached upon the cottage, and the cottage upon the palace, so that the room combined the simplicity of the peasant woman and the luxury of the court lady.

The priedieu on which she knelt was of oak, marvellously carved, covered with velvet and with gold fringes, while the Bible from which she was reading (for she was of the reformed religion) was very old and torn, like those found in the poorest cottages; now everything in the room was typified by the priedieu and the Bible.

“Eh, Madelon!” said the King.

The kneeling woman lifted her head smilingly at the well-known voice, and rising from her knees —

“Ah! it is you, my son,” said she.

“Yes, nurse; come here.”

Charles IX. let fall the curtain, and sat down on the arm of an easy-chair. The nurse appeared.

“What do you want with me, Charlot?”

“Come near, and answer in a low tone.”

The nurse approached him with a familiarity such as might come from that maternal affection felt by a woman for her nursling, but attributed by the pamphlets of the time to a source infinitely less pure.

“Here I am,” said she; “speak!”

“Is the man I sent for come?”

“He has been here half an hour.”

Charles rose, approached the window, looked to assure himself there were no eavesdroppers, went to the door and looked out there also, shook the dust from his trophies of arms, patted a large greyhound which followed him wherever he went, stopping when he stopped and moving when he moved — then returning to his nurse:

“Very well, nurse, let him come in,” said he.

The worthy woman disappeared by the same passage by which she had entered, while the king went and leaned against a table on which were scattered arms of every kind.

Scarcely had he done so when the portière was again lifted, and the person whom he expected entered.

He was a man of about forty, his eyes gray and false, his nose curved like the beak of a screech-owl, his cheek-bones prominent. His face tried to look respectful, but all that he could do was to wear a hypocritical smile on his lips blanched with fear.

Charles gently put his hand behind him, and grasped the butt of a pistol of a new construction, that was discharged, not by a match, as formerly, but by a flint brought in contact with a wheel of steel. He fixed his dull eyes steadily on the newcomer; meantime he whistled, with perfect precision and with remarkable sweetness, one of his favorite hunting-airs.

After a pause of some minutes, during which the expression of the stranger’s face grew more and more discomposed,

“You are the person,” said the King, “called François de Louvièrs Maurevel?”

“Yes, sire.”

“Captain of petardeers?”

“Yes, sire.”

“I wanted to see you.”

Maurevel made a low bow.

“You know,” continued Charles, laying a stress on each word, “that I love all my subjects equally?”

“I know,” stammered Maurevel, “that your Majesty is the father of your people.”

“And that the Huguenots and Catholics are equally my children?”

Maurevel remained silent, but his agitation was manifest to the King’s piercing eyes, although the person whom he was addressing was almost concealed in the darkness.

“Does this displease you,” said the King, “you who have waged such a bitter war on the Huguenots?”

Maurevel fell on his knees.

“Sire,” stammered he, “believe that”—

“I believe,” continued Charles, looking more and more keenly at Maurevel, while his eyes, which at first had seemed like glass, now became almost fiery, “I believe that you had a great desire at Moncontour to kill the admiral, who has just left me; I believe you missed your aim, and that then you entered the army of my brother, the Duc d’Anjou; I believe that then you went for a second time over to the prince’s and there took service in the company of M. de Mouy de Saint Phale”—

“Oh, sire!”

“A brave gentleman from Picardy”—

“Sire, sire!” cried Maurevel, “do not overwhelm me.”

“He was a brave officer,” continued Charles, whose features assumed an aspect of almost ferocious cruelty, “who received you as if you had been his son; fed you, lodged you, and clothed you.”

Maurevel uttered a despairing sigh.

“You called him your father, I believe,” continued the King, pitilessly, “and a tender friendship existed between you and the young De Mouy, his son.”

Maurevel, still on his knees, bowed low, more and more crushed under the indignation of the King, who stood immovable, like a statue whose lips only are endowed with vitality.

“By the way,” continued the King, “M. de Guise was to give you ten thousand crowns if you killed the admiral — was he not?”

The assassin in consternation struck his forehead against the floor.

“As regards your worthy father, the Sieur de Mouy, you were one day acting as his escort in a reconnaissance toward Chevreux. He dropped his whip and dismounted to pick it up. You were alone with him; you took a pistol from your holster, and while he was bending over, you shot him in the back; then seeing he was dead — for you killed him on the spot — you escaped on the horse he had given you. This is your history, I believe?”

And as Maurevel remained mute under this accusation, every circumstance of which was true, Charles IX. began to whistle again, with the same precision and melody, the same hunting-air.

“Now, then, murderer!” said he after a little, “do you know I have a great mind to have you hanged?”

“Oh, your Majesty!” cried Maurevel.

“Young De Mouy entreated me to do so only yesterday, and I scarcely knew what answer to make him, for his demand was perfectly just.”

Maurevel clasped his hands.

“All the more just, because I am, as you say, the father of my people; and because, as I answered you, now that I am reconciled to the Huguenots, they are as much my children as the Catholics.”

“Sire,” said Maurevel, in despair, “my life is in your hands; do with it what you will.”

“You are quite right, and I would not give a groat for it.”

“But, sire,” asked the assassin, “is there no means of redeeming my crime?”

“None that I know of; only if I were in your place — but thank God I am not”—

“Well, sire, if you were in my place?” murmured Maurevel, his eyes fixed on the King’s lips.

“I think I could extricate myself,” said the King.

Maurevel raised himself on one knee and one hand, fixing his eyes upon Charles to make certain that he was not jesting.

“I am very fond of young De Mouy,” said the King; “but I am equally fond of my cousin De Guise; and if my cousin asked me to spare a man that the other wanted me to hang, I confess I should be embarrassed; but for policy as well as religion’s sake I should comply with my cousin De Guise’s request, for De Mouy, brave captain though he be, is but a petty personage compared with a prince of Lorraine.”

During these words, Maurevel slowly rose, like a man whose life is saved.

“In your critical situation it would be a very important thing to gain my cousin De Guise’s favor. So I am going to tell you what he said to me last night.”

Maurevel drew nearer.

“‘Imagine, sire,’ said he to me, ‘that every morning, at ten o’clock, my deadliest enemy passes down the Rue Saint Germain l’Auxerrois, on his return from the Louvre. I see him from a barred window in the room of my old preceptor, the Canon Pierre Piles, and I pray the devil to open the earth and swallow him in its abysses.’ Now, Maître Maurevel,” continued the King, “perhaps if you were the devil, or if for an instant you should take his place, that would perhaps please my cousin De Guise.”

Maurevel’s infernal smile came back to his lips, though they were still bloodless with terror, and he stammered out these words:

“But, sire, I cannot make the earth open.”

“Yet you made it open wide enough for the worthy De Mouy, if I remember correctly. After this you will tell me how with a pistol — have you not that pistol still?”

“Forgive me, sire, I am a still better marksman with an arquebuse than a pistol,” replied Maurevel, now quite reassured.

“Pistol or arquebuse makes no difference,” said the King; “I am sure my cousin De Guise will not cavil over the choice of methods.”

“But,” said Maurevel, “I must have a weapon I can rely on, as, perhaps, I shall have to fire from a long distance.”

“I have ten arquebuses in this room,” replied Charles IX., “with which I can hit a crown-piece at a hundred and fifty paces — will you try one?”

“Most willingly, sire!” cried Maurevel, with the greatest joy, going in the direction of one which was standing in a corner of the room. It was the one which that day had been brought to the King.

“No, not that one,” said the King, “not that one; I reserve that for myself. Some day I am going to have a grand hunt and then I hope to use it. Take any other you like.”

Maurevel took one down from a trophy.

“And who is this enemy, sire?” asked the assassin.

“How should I know,” replied Charles, withering the wretch with his contemptuous look.

“I must ask M. de Guise, then,” faltered Maurevel.

The King shrugged his shoulders.

“Do not ask,” said he; “for M. de Guise will not answer. Do people generally answer such questions? Those that do not wish to be hanged must guess them.”

“But how shall I know him?”

“I tell you he passes the Canon’s house every morning at ten o’clock.”

“But many pass that house. Would your Majesty deign to give me any certain sign?”

“Oh, that is easy enough; tomorrow, for example, he will carry a red morocco portfolio under his arm.”

“That is sufficient, sire.”

“You still have the fast horse M. de Mouy gave you?”

“Sire, I have one of the fleetest of horses.”

“Oh, I am not in the least anxious about you; only it is as well to let you know the monastery has a back door.”

“Thanks, sire; pray Heaven for me!”

“Oh, a thousand devils! pray to Satan rather; for only by his aid can you escape a halter.”

“Adieu, sire.”

“Adieu! By the way, M. de Maurevel, remember that if you are heard of before ten tomorrow, or are not heard of afterward, there is a dungeon at the Louvre.”

And Charles IX. calmly began to whistle, with more than usual precision, his favorite air.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37